Expecting People with Obesity to Repent?

Buried in the jargon of a paper newly published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied is a stunning observation. Weight bias comes from feeling disgusted by people with obesity — thinking they are not trying hard enough to fix their problem. “Those people should repent of their obesity” seems to be the thinking. But then, maybe “thinking” is the wrong word. This phenomenon is more about feelings than it is about rational thought.

Joanne Beames and colleagues describe their findings as “evidence for a pro-effort bias in prejudice toward individuals with obesity.” They conducted a series of experiments that showed information about efforts to lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle was  a more important factor in obesity prejudice than information about causes of obesity or a person’s weight status. They also found evidence that the emotion of disgust was driving prejudice toward people who are seen as not trying hard enough to live at a healthy weight. The authors go on to say:

Interventions to reduce weight stigma might be improved by highlighting the fact that many individuals with obesity are actively trying to lose weight. In this way, we can work toward developing more effective ways to minimize the widespread prejudice and discrimination against individuals with obesity.

The Moral Narrative of ObesityThis last idea is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s pragmatic and true. Most people with obesity have put a great deal of effort and angst into managing their weight and their health. Great suffering results because obesity is so resistant to individual efforts. It keeps coming back like a boomerang. If knowledge of these facts will blunt the widespread prejudice toward people with obesity, so much the better.

But on the other hand, this line of thinking implies some sort of morality test for people with obesity. Do people with the chronic disease of obesity really need to repent in order to gain social acceptance?

The bottom line is no. Every one of us will suffer disease and death. Nobody gets a vote on the matter. Human frailty is not a matter of moral retribution, it’s a fact of life. Get over it.

Click here to read the study by Beames et al. Click here for perspective on an alternative approach in fat studies programs for reducing prejudice.

Regret, photograph © natalie / flickr

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February 23, 2016

4 Responses to “Expecting People with Obesity to Repent?”

  1. February 23, 2016 at 6:23 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Ted – this is so important. I’m finally getting around to reading Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and it is so relevant to health conditions that have been imbued with moral relevance, like obesity and addiction (including to nicotine). What he recounts is how powerful the emotional reaction of disgust is at driving thinking and behavior–almost totally overriding logic. The creativity people will show to associate some actual “harm” to justify their disgust reaction is incredible.

    And I can’t remember if I had sent you this brief article from Lynn Kozlowski: He addresses nicotine and e-cigarettes, but given the data you summarize above, likely germane to obesity, too.

    Thank you!


    • February 23, 2016 at 7:54 am, Ted said:

      You didn’t, Joe, but I included a link to it in the piece I wrote on nicotine and obesity last week. It is indeed a thoughtful publication. Thanks!

  2. February 23, 2016 at 8:19 am, Angela Meadows said:

    Indeed! And you have saved me the effort of blogging about this 🙂

    The irony of the dehumanising ‘headless fatty’ image accompanying the linked to piece of fat studies is quite stunning though.

    • February 23, 2016 at 8:30 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Angela! Feel free to borrow and share.